A new meaning to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?”
The West is thoroughly industrial and modern. As a result, we have access to unimaginable luxury and leisure. Even our “poor” are immeasurably well off compared to the standards of the world. The West, needless to say, leads the world in standard of living. Except for one thing. Happiness and spiritual wellbeing. Birthrates are declining, religion is fading, and a sense of organic community is disappearing. Hedonism has replaced virtue it seems. We are overly medicated, depressed, bulimic and obese. Apparently, the West is a peculiar place.
Too strong of an indictment? Maybe so but there is some evidence that materialism and the access to more stuff leaves us feeling empty. Searching for something; anything, to fill a void, we wind up becoming a slave to modern devices and our property.
I don’t agree with everything in this article but it is well worth the read in light of the things mentioned.
The case against making increased GDP per capita the overriding policy objective is that it doesn’t deliver the increased happiness or welfare if promises. In 1974, the economist Richard Easterlin published a famous paper, “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?”. The answer, he concluded, after correlating per capita incomes and self-reported happiness levels across a number of countries is probably “no”. In a refinement dating from 1995, Easterlin found no relationship between income and happiness above an average per capita income level of between $15,000 and $20,000. Other findings confirm Easterlin. Data from the UK show that from 1973 to 2009, there was a continuous rise in GDP per head, but no increase in reported life-satisfaction. What is more, some of the “happiest” countries are also the poorest. However, inequality within countries does matter for happiness: the rich in the UK are on the whole happier than the poor.
Why, above a quite low income threshold, does a person’s happiness not increase with more income? The intuitive explanation must be that rising incomes produce dissatisfactions which offset the pleasure which the increase affords. Turner discusses some of the ills of wealth. The richer societies are, the more “status” goods people want, but because status is relative there is never, so to speak, enough of it to go round. The same is true of “positional” goods. “If the supply of pleasant homes is restricted then you have to seek to win in the relative income competition.” But there are only a few winners. Growth in wealth also worsens the environment, thus degrading the benefits it seems to make more generally available.